Steve Jobs: His ‘genius’ was in his editing

November 7, 2011

Author Malcolm Gladwell writes in this week’s New Yorker review of Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of the late Steve Jobs that the Apple co-founder’s true genius was not in his design or his vision. It was in his editing.

Gladwell, who’s found success writing about the reasoning behind success, compares Jobs not to Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein, but to Richard Roberts — a precision-tool maker from the British Industrial Revolution who perfected Samuel Compton’s cotton-manufacturing device, the spinning mule.

“Jobs’s sensibility was editorial, not inventive,” Gladwell writes, picking up on the fact the biography makes no bones about that many of Jobs’s greatest accomplishments — the graphical interface, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad — were all really improvements on ideas that were already out on the market. So while Jobs was furious when he felt Apple was being “ripped off,” it was because the “greatest tweaker of his generation did not care to be tweaked,” Gladwell writes.

And not all of them were his tweaks, either. Apple designer Jony Ive said in his interview with Isaacson that Jobs often took credit for ideas that were, technically, not his. Ive and Jobs were extremely close and got along very well, but in the book Ive expresses a hint of annoyance about the way Jobs took too much credit for some of his ideas.

“I pay maniacal attention to where an idea comes from, and I even keep notebooks filled with my ideas,” Ive told Isaacson. “So it hurts when he takes credit for one of my designs.”

But what Jobs was good at, Gladwell says, was pursuing the “romance of perfectionism” at all costs. This design above all philosophy, Isaacson notes, got Apple into trouble on occasion, but also set its products apart. And Jobs didn’t only apply his editor’s eye to consumer technology. He came up with ways to improve everything, even the oxygen monitors and breathing masks that he had to wear during his stays in the hospital.

In fact, in her eulogy for her brother, Jobs’s sister Mona Simpson said that she was delighted to see his “sketch for a perfect staircase” in the New York Times feature about his patents.

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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